Just as, twenty-five years ago, Albanians left the country in droves
THE ITALIANS could scarcely believe their eyes. Twenty-five years ago thousands of Albanians, crammed onto leaky boats, began arriving in the southern port of Brindisi, on the south-east coast of Italy (pictured). Communism was collapsing in Albania and rumours had spread that the Italians were handing out visas. In August alone 20,000 packed onto a single ship. Then the Italians promised to pay the Albanian government $9m ($16m today) to keep their people at home and the flow of people came to an end.
Today’s migrant crisis gives many Albanians mixed feelings. As a country of emigrants Albanians are sympathetic to others who flee war or who just want better lives. Just under 3m people live there; at least 1m Albanians, the largest part of the diaspora, live in Greece and Italy. Last year just under 55,000 tried their luck at escaping poverty by joining the flow from the Middle East and applying for political asylum in Germany (nearly all will fail).
The Albanian authorities have started to worry that Albania is going to have to deal with people arriving rather than leaving. Some now predict that refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq—many of whom are blocked in Greece from entering Europe through Macedonia—may now try their luck through Albania. Small numbers have been detected on the routes across Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia. Rumours are circulating that Albanian mafiosi are looking in Italy for rubber dinghies known as gommoni to speed migrants to Italy as they did with thousands of Kurds and others in the 1990s. So far nothing, bar the odd drug-smuggling speedboat, appears to be crossing the Adriatic. Many migrants in Greece have heard that Albania is risky and that if you are not robbed and killed by the mafia you risk spending a year in jail. In the last few months only a few hundred have had a go.
Although the country has experienced a sudden influx of migration before—during the Kosovo war of 1998-99 around 500,000 Kosovo Albanians went there and stayed until the war was over—in many respects it is ill-prepared. Albania is now deploying extra police to guard its borders. On March 4th Italy promised to send men and equipment to help on both land and sea. But Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, says that his country is not open to migrants. So one more country along the Balkan migrant trail may yet become overwhelmed by, and then deeply hostile to, thousands of refugees fleeing war. The fact that so many Albanians have found welcome abroad may count for little.